A note on feedback

I had an epiphany recently about performance feedback that seems so obvious in hindsight. One of those things you realize and then think, “This took me 6 years to figure out?”

At Automattic a lot of our feedback conversations take the form of a 3-2-1-Oh chat. It’s a mix of a team member writing a self-assessment and a team lead writing a review. The conversation centers around answers to these bullet points:

  • What are 3 things you’ve done well?
  • What are 2 areas or skills you’d like to develop?
  • What’s 1 way your team lead or Automattic itself can support you?
  • And, oh, can you write a sentence or two about how you see your career developing?

I’ve done these conversations with team members for over 3 years. In every instance I approached the 3-2-1 as an exhaustive review of each and every aspect of someone’s work. I tried to solve all the problems in one go. I’d review hundreds of ticket replies, P2 posts, and try to cover an evaluation of everything. It took me until this week to realize that’s an untenable position.

That exhaustive approach was time-intensive and, likely, did each team member a disservice. On my side it took at least 10 hours for each person. On their side it resulted in a deluge of ideas on what they should improve.

If timely and meaningful feedback is your goal then spending 10 hours to put it together is near-impossible. If regular and incremental growth in a person’s work is your goal then an avalanche of ideas for improvement inhibits that.

I now realize that spending a little less time, more regularly, to generate fewer ideas will better serve my team members. It’s better to keep someone on course through a series of small adjustments than through a U-turn. My goal is to have these conversations on a quarterly basis. Trying to improve a host of things about your work in that limited amount of time isn’t realistic. It’s better to narrow your focus and then regularly revisit and adjust goals.

If you’re a team lead tasked with helping people grow and improve, try distilling your feedback down to just 2 ideas. It will add clarity to your own thinking and definition to your team member’s plans.